Religion sustains traditional values within otherwise constantly evolving cultures, propagating sexism through rigid gender roles. These are manifested through all major religions’ demands on the clothing of its followers, directed unevenly towards women. All major religions have similar principles on female clothing modesty.
Gendered clothing is dictated to an embellished degree in Deuteronomy 22:5 of the Old Testament with, “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.” 1 Timothy 2:8, part of the New Testament, states, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control.” This suggests the primary concern in regards to the behavior of males is violence, while the most important aspect for females is their appearance.
One of the five main pillars of Islam is modesty, and it has specific restrictions on the dress of women and even direct eye contact between sexes, with IV/15 of the Quran stating, “If any one of your women is guilty of lewdness, confine them until death claims them”.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews follow Tzniut, which prohibits immodest female dress, touching someone of the opposite sex before marriage, and female public speaking and singing in the presence of men.
Women in all three major religions are often taught to avoid “inflaming men’s lust” with their clothing choices, and this is reflected everywhere from countries that follow Sharia law, to the Mormon church, and even Western public school dress codes that aim to create a “distraction-free environment” for boys with regulations on skirt length and restrictions on leggings. There is a definite correlation between the influence of major religions and patriarchal ideologies.
No religious text directly defines what modesty is, though many have attempted to create a definition based upon the texts. Leslie J. Reagan, author of “When Abortion Was A Crime”, defined modesty in religion as “a mark of sexual purity and respectable womanhood”. In “Defining and Exploring Modesty in Jewish American Women,” Caryn Andrews investigated personal views on modesty by quantifying qualitative prospectives to form a definition. She found ultra-Orthodox Haredi women believed modesty was forced onto them, but they generally still viewed it as a positive aspect of themselves. More casual observers of Judaism that practiced modesty out of “maturity” did not believe they were taught modesty by their parents, but rather made a personal choice on body image during adulthood, like any fashion choice. She questioned a third group of Jewish women independent of religiosity that self identified as “esteem-driven” and “reserved”. These women believed their modesty was not purely motivated by religion, and were also the group most likely to avoid health care and use only female providers out of feeling vulnerable. Without connecting it to religion, they had a strong belief in “being undressed is subservient”, and strongly preferred healthcare examinations from other women, unlike the Orthodox group. Andrews found that modesty was a part of culture more than just as a religious practice and concluded that:
“Modesty can be defined as a multidimensional construct with five attributes which include (1) how one dresses, (2) how one acts, (3) belief in the value of modesty, (4) how one is brought up in particular culture, and (5) the interaction between people In modern culture.”
It has been noted that Chinese women often have issues with removing clothes for healthcare examinations, while Islamic women only have issues with male providers. Modesty is problematic for many reasons. It’s primarily targeted towards women, and has been shown to create a barrier for those wanting to practice safe sex, seeking medical examinations and treatment, and breast-feeding in public.
Ambivalent Sexism Theory, developed by social psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, argues that there are two connected underlying forms for sexism: hostile and benevolent. Hostile sexism carries the notion that women get special favors for being discriminated against, similarly to how many people argue against affirmative action. Benevolent sexism can be equated to the “Damsel in Distress” concept of women being pure and delicate, needing men for protection. These two principals working congruently cause “power hungry” woman to receive hostility. Clothing modesty works between the two forms, with husbands and fathers distrustfully seeing it as a preventative measure both necessary to prevent other men’s lust, and her infidelity, in practice sustaining her pure status reliant on the man.
While it is uncertain whether these two complimentary forms of sexism were the norm before each religious text, there is empirical evidence to suggest that religion continues to cultivate them. In one study from 1999, religious individuals in Canada felt less empathy for an abuse victim when they acted outside of religious values, justifying the crime with the victim’s behavior (such as premarital sex, revealing clothing, and homosexuality). The Catholic Church, among many other religious authorities, actively teaches distinct gender roles of male dominance and responsibility, and female cordiality and domesticity, with interdependence between them to justify the traditional roles. A study of American Christians from 2005 linked men’s religious orthodoxy as a measure of protective paternalism. Studies of Catholics in Spain, Evangelical Christians in the US, Muslims in Turkey, and Jewish people in Israel all replicated the findings with a positive link between religiosity and benevolent sexism. Studies do not similarly correlate religion with hostile sexism, leading many to believe hostile sexism is spread at a more personal level. Benevolent sexism is taught to keep women unequal, while hostile sexism is the response to women acting outside of traditional gender roles.
Religion is a facet of culture that is sustained longer than any other. Even with 20th century feminist movements allowing women to hold scholarly positions, the majority of the world still follows belief systems that view these positions as “mens’ jobs”. The Bible and Quran took a position completely in line with the cultural norms of their times, while perpetuating the uneven treatment of men and women due to their continued relevance long past other written works of the time. Clothing modesty is one of the many ways organized religion has controlled the behavior of women to benefit a patriarchal established order. I believe organized religion needs strong reforms to stop being considered a negative force in the development of feminism, and equalization of gender roles.